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Mr. St. Aubyn: I have done some research: I went to the Library and asked for figures on how long the House normally debates Bills. For the last Session for which there is information--the last Session of the previous Parliament--there were 32 Bills, and a total of 227 hours were spent considering those Bills on the Floor of the House, giving an average of about seven hours in total spent on each Bill. The Committee stages of the two constitutional Bills of this Session are taking more than 100 hours of debate on the Floor of the House. It is perfectly reasonable for hon. Members to debate this

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evening whether it is right that we should devote a guaranteed extra six and a half hours to one of those constitutional Bills.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will my hon. Friend make it clear during his speech whether he welcomes the extension of time in principle, whether he is unhappy with what has brought it about and whether he feels that it should be more widely applied in other circumstances? That would help those of us who want to participate in the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) is not going to talk about any wider applications; he will confine his remarks to the motion before the House.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would lead me down dangerous paths if I were to let him, and it is not my intention to do so.

It is worth considering why we need the extra six and a half hours of debate and, in the absence of any statement from the Leader of the House in proposing the motion, I can only divine that one of the reasons is to make sure that we have a six-and-a-half-hour debate on the West Lothian question.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor): Would the hon. Gentleman care to correct the impression that he has given? I am sure that he has read extremely carefully both tonight's motion and the order that it would amend. He would be misleading the House were he to suggest that we propose an extra six and a half hours.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I have the original motion of 13 January in front of me. As a new Member, I find some of the rules and regulations a little hard to follow and, if that is what has happened, I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker; however, as I understand it, the motion before us guarantees periods of six and a half hours when they might not otherwise be available. I have given the example of this afternoon, when we thought that we would have a three-and-a-half-hour debate on an issue of national importance, but the time available was cut. My understanding of the motion, in the absence of further clarification from the right hon. Lady, is that, from the time we start on the Scottish issue, we shall have an absolutely guaranteed six and a half hours for debate.

The question is, should we allow that? I have read the rules and the proposals carefully and there is nothing on the face of the motion or in the order of 13 January to suggest for one moment that what we shall be discussing in that six and a half hours is the West Lothian question.

Mr. Salmond: May I offer another explanation for the allocation of six and a half hours? Might it be because some hon. Members are talking for too long about very little indeed?

Mr. St. Aubyn: That is often the case--the hon. Gentleman has made a valuable point, and it is one that I hope he will bear in mind when he rises to speak in future.

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It is critical that we have a statement. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to intervene again, to assure us that the substantive purpose of the amendment to the order is to ensure that we have a debate on the West Lothian question. If that is the purpose, I would welcome it, albeit conditionally, and I would be prepared to support the motion, because the West Lothian question is of great importance to this country. However, if we are being guaranteed six and a half hours for a debate on that issue--one of constitutional importance, which goes to the heart of the Scotland Bill--it is fair to ask ourselves why we are not being guaranteed similar periods of time to consider the other vital issues that are being brought before the House in rapid succession by the new Government.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Is six and a half hours long enough? The West Lothian question is the same as what used to be called the Irish question, on which, under the Gladstone Government, the House spent weeks. Under the previous Labour Government, the House spent days on the West Lothian question, but we now have six and a half hours in which to consider a matter that is pertinent to the future of the United Kingdom. Is that satisfactory?

Mr. St. Aubyn: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. If so much time had not been spent in Committee on the Floor of the House considering the minutiae of the Scotland Bill, we could have had many hours in which to debate this vital constitutional issue. It is extraordinary that so much time has been spent debating the Bill when the so-called West Lothian question has not been considered, especially as consideration of that question could determine whether hon. Members continue to support the Bill.

Mr. Salmond: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was present, so I should tell him that the West Lothian question was indeed discussed at two sittings when the Bill was considered in Committee.

Mr. Leigh: Very briefly.

Mr. Salmond: Not that briefly. At any rate, the question has been considered--perhaps the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) will accept the correction.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful for that minor correction, but my substantive point still holds. I should have thought that Scottish National party Members, as well as Conservative Members, would have been keen at the outset to deal with the most substantive issue relating to the Scotland Bill and its consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom. The reason why the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) does not care about the West Lothian question is that it has an impact on England--the attitude is, "I'm all right, Jock." We have a problem with Scottish Members if that is their attitude and if they are not prepared to consider the Bill's impact on the people of England.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the merits of the Bill, but we are not considering the Bill's merits--we are considering the Scotland Bill programme.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am again grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask one further question, which I think will

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have some impact on how hon. Members vote on the motion. Who will be involved in the debate? Will the Prime Minister--who was educated in Scotland and now claims to represent the whole United Kingdom--come to the Dispatch Box during the six-and-a-half-hour debate to explain his position on the West Lothian question?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That has nothing to do with the matter before us.

7.32 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor): I had thought that the motion was sufficiently self-explanatory not to need much of an introduction. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) is new to the House, so he may not fully have understood the procedure. As you rightly pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the motion is narrow and specific.

For the benefit of those who have not fully kept up to date with what is happening in the House, I should give some background to the original motion. On Second Reading of the Scotland Bill, the House agreed, without a Division--I think that my memory is correct--that there should be a programme motion. The programme motion is a new procedure recommended by the Modernisation Committee to facilitate the pacing of debates, so that all parts of a Bill can be debated, which is not always what happens when we follow the alternative method of allocating time--a guillotine motion.

Conservative Members may care to reflect on the fact that that programme motion was tabled not only in my name, but in the names of the shadow Leader of the House, of the Liberal Democrat spokesman and of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). There was cross-party agreement on how the Bill should be handled.

The motion is narrow and details some aspects of how that agreement should be carried out in practice. As I had to tell the hon. Member for Guildford, it does not allow for an extra six and a half hours. Programme motionsare experimental--the Modernisation Committee recommended that the House should try that new way of working. As we have said, we shall learn as we go on and ensure that the system works as well as possible.

Programme motions involve the establishment of a Business Committee, to work out how best to deal with the pacing of debates. An issue that has arisen on one or two occasions when a Bill has been programmed is whether--when debate is curtailed because of a statement or, indeed, because the Opposition have tabled a private notice question, as they did today--there should be injury time for the time that is lost. The motion simply ensures that, if time is taken because of a statement--we do not intend to have statements on these days, but something might crop up that requires one to be made--or because of a private notice question that is accepted by Madam Speaker, the time for consideration of the Scotland Bill will be protected. The motion provides for injury time, which I believe is for the convenience of the House.

That approach was agreed through the usual channels. If Conservative Back Benchers have any problems with that, or with other matters that are not as relevant, they should have consulted Conservative Front Benchers.

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